A Central Illinois lawmaker said he’s encouraged by first steps taken by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the its director’s pledge to “re-focus on safety.”
State Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton, met last week with DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith and later visited with frontline DCFS staff in Bloomington. Sommer, whose district includes parts of Bloomington-Normal, is the top Republican on the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee.
DCFS has come under scrutiny this year following a string of high-profile deaths involving children in the agency’s orbit. That includes 8-year-old Rica Rountree of Normal, whose father’s girlfriend is now accused of chronically abusing the girl and fatally kicking her in the stomach. She’s pleaded not guilty.
“It shouldn’t be allowed to happen again,” Sommer said.
Sommer said Smith briefed him on several changes underway within DCFS:
- Hired 202 new employees (out of 300 planned) as of last week, including 20 on the hotline that’s often the first contact on an abuse or neglect allegation.
- Required two-day safety seminar for all employees, and those who have direct access to children through providers, with six-month required follow-up.
- Updated supervisor training program.
- Breaking up regional administrator jobs into three jobs with specific focus areas: investigations, Intact Family Services, and foster care.
Sommer said he’s also exploring whether legislation is needed to give DCFS more latitude to require medical examinations of children who may have been abused.
Sommer pointed to Rica’s case. After showing up to school in December 2018 with two black eyes, authorities say DCFS directed Rica’s father’s girlfriend to take Rica for X-rays and she refused to do it. Rica stayed in the home and, for the third time in 16 months, a DCFS investigation of Richard and Baker determined any claims of abuse to be “unfounded.”
A month later, Rica was dead. The girlfriend was later charged with murder.
“People who deal with these cases on a medical level say, ‘Certainly we want to be involved.’ Let’s find a pathway to do so. I’m talking with those individuals and trying to find a way to do that,” Sommer said. “I think there will be some (legislation), between my colleagues and myself. I’m not sure where we’re going yet.”
Sommer said he was also encouraged by a new DFCS telemedicine program that allows a child's injuries to be reviewed by doctors remotely. That's now available in Rockford, Springfield, Urbana, and Danville, and will be accessible statewide by spring 2020, Sommer said.
Sommer said “we have to find answers.”
“In Rica Rountree’s case, I’m not sure where the system failed,” he said. “Whether it was the failure to get that medical exam. Because in that case, it was not just one instance. There were several. The department in both cases, the accusations were ‘unfounded.’ Well, once, shame on you. Twice, shame on me. That’s why I mention medical examination. That’s where I’m trying to focus to make sure we’re paying more attention to the physical abuse of a child and don’t wait too long.”